Some College, No Degree
Utah consistently ranks among the top states for number of individuals with “some college and no degree.” The most recent data from the Lumina Foundation’s 2015 report, A Stronger Nation through Higher Education, ranks Utah as the second-highest in the percentage of 25-64 year-olds who have completed some college but have not earned a degree – 28%. A variety of factors impact a student’s ability to persist and finish college, including: pausing or delaying college for charitable or religious service, life events like marriage or family, or working a job to help finance college. It’s estimated that nearly four out of five college students are working while attending college, with the average student working 19 hours per week during the school year.
Unfortunately, these factors also begin to work against a student’s likelihood of completing a college degree. While gaining some college without achieving a degree or certificate may yield some lifetime benefits, the data is clear: earning a college degree or certificate is worth the investment. One recent report from the William T. Grant Foundation highlights that “some college and no degree” yields no greater benefits than a high school diploma in the workplace.
Prior Learning Assessment
A key component to addressing the issue of “some college, no degree” and the success of adult learners in higher ed is competency-based learning, which includes assessing skills acquired outside of the classroom.
The Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) has embarked on a pilot with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) to further explore Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs), aimed particularly at adult learners. USHE institutions already grant credit for prior learning through established programs such as AP/IB, CLEP and ACE credit (particularly for veterans). However, students—particularly adult learners—acquire skills through a variety of work-based and non-work-based experience. PLA attempts to address a broader portfolio of experience an adult learner has that may help in earning a college certificate or degree. In addition, financial aid opportunities for working adults can also be limited.
This initiative is being piloted at three USHE institutions for the upcoming 2015-16 academic year: a portfolio-based prior learning assessment program called LearningCounts is being launched at Weber State University and Utah Valley University; each institution has picked particular departments to be involved, and we hope to see students submit their first portfolios in the upcoming academic year. Salt Lake Community College is one of 40 colleges nationwide working with the U.S. Department of Education experimenting with competency-based education and prior learning assessment, granting them a waiver from certain rules that govern federal financial aid.
Stackable Credentials and Reverse Transfer
Prior Learning Assessment highlights the importance of one of the five key strategies of the Completion Initiative (approved by the Board of Regents in July 2013): increasing stackable credentials and reverse transfer at USHE institutions. This is where academic credits for coursework completed at a four-year university are transferred back to the previously-attended community college to satisfy associate degree requirements. Some students transfer into four-year universities before completing an associate degree at a community college, with a percentage of this group eventually earning a bachelor’s degree through a combination of credits from both institutions. Through reverse transfer, a student’s achievements are recognized with an associate degree after they have transferred to a four-year school and have accumulated the credits needed to fulfill the two-year degree program requirements.